Comedy: Aziz Ansari on the evolution of his standup, encores and his “Parks and Recreation” character

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From the April 24, 2014 edition
  • Photo courtesy NBC

There’s not much more to say about Aziz Ansari other than he’s one of the funniest people on the planet. As one of the best standup comedians working right now — with three hit specials (all available on Netflix), and working on spectacular TV comedies (previously “Human Giant” and currently “Parks and Recreation”) — Ansari seems to be at the top of his game.

When Ansari stops in Columbus for his “Modern Romance” tour, the two shows could represent his best standup yet. We spoke about the evolution of his standup, the encore and singing elements in his act and his character on “Parks and Recreation.”

There’s an evolution throughout your three specials where you’re discussing more adult topics and themes, especially in the most recent “Buried Alive. Is that a reflection of what you’re experiencing in life?

So there’s probably a certain point where you saw a lot of your friends were settling down. It’s kind of a weird thing. “Oh shit, my friends and I are becoming full-on adults.” That’s kind of a crazy thing to realize.

That was kind of the impetus for “Buried Alive.” When you’re writing standup, at least for me anyways, you write about whatever is in your head. When I was 23, 24 writing the material for “Intimate Moments” it was like, “Oh, I’m just a young kid in New York [City] doing nothing. This is fun. What am I going to talk about? My chubby cousin Harris? He’s funny.”

Then when you get older, it’s, “Oh my god, I’m going to die.” That’s what’s in my head, not my cousin watching “Suits” on USA. But you still think about random funny things. I think if you want to be an interesting comedian or artist, you constantly have to evolve what you do.

I’m glad you said you noticed an evolution because that’s the goal. You want people to watch your shit and be like, “Aw man, he just keeps getting better … and getting deeper and more interesting.”

I was very young when I did [“Intimate Moments”]. Not a lot of comedians have hour specials at that early stage of their career. I mean at that point I’d been doing it about seven years; it wasn’t like super early. But relative to my age it was pretty early. And I’m really fortunate that I had that opportunity.

But in a way, “Buried Alive” is the first special I’d written after I’d been doing [standup] a long time and figured out what I was doing. I still stand by all the stuff in those other specials and I love those, but I think “Buried Alive” [shows] I’m a way better comedian than I was back then.

Another aspect of “Buried Alive” was you doing a good amount of crowd work. Is that normal for you?

Well, I started doing that when I was developing material, going to small clubs in New York and Los Angeles where there’s like 80 people there. There are topics I didn’t have personal experience with. For example, online dating, being married, or being a girl and getting a dick photo sent to you. So I started talking to people in the audience and asking them about it.

It wasn’t really crowd work, as much as getting into conversations with people and trying to learn about these experiences. So that became a fun thing for me. Then I started doing the things in the special where I would ask people about marriage proposals or whether a dude’s ever sent them a dick photo. It … made every show different, this interactive element [that’s] special and unique.

In the new show [“Modern Romance”], there’s stuff like that too. I really like talking to people and hearing their stories. I read some quote from Howard Stern — I love Howard Stern interviews more than pretty much anything. I think he’s the best interviewer. He said this great thing … like, “There’s no bad interview. Everyone is very interesting.” I believe that. I love hearing about people’s lives and experiences.

Those bits worked really well. Does it take a lot of confidence to do crowd-based material?

No matter what planned material you have as a comedian, when you do something off-the-cuff that’s really funny, it explodes people’s minds in a weird way. It shouldn’t have that much of an effect, I don’t know what it is; this other element when it’s something they saw happen in front of their faces. It’s fun to build that into the show.

And the more you do it, the better you become at it. When I do that in “Buried Alive,” the marriage proposal thing, I got so good at doing that particular thing. I did it in every city. At first I thought, “What if one is kind of boring or something. What am I going to do?” Then I realized I’m good at this [and] I’ve done it so many times there’s never going to be a bad one.

You also do some singing in your act. It’s a lot of fun and you’re not a half-bad singer.

There would be plenty of people that would disagree with that. It just so happens that the last bit in a few of the specials ends with me singing some shit I guess.

What’s so crazy is [pretty much] anyone who does comedy … at some point had an interest in music. It’s a weird thing. A lot of comedy people dabbled in music at some point in their life. And I’m not different, I played guitar a lot when I was in high school and took piano lessons when I was a kid.

You also have these hilarious stories about hanging out with celebrities, and even President Obama. Are they all completely true?

Yeah, they’re all true. It would be pretty ridiculous if I made up a story meeting the President for a standup bit. I’d feel pretty bad. Then I’d have to make the story even more outrageous — man, I saw President Obama stab a dude. It was crazy. [They’re] 100 percent true, but pretty surreal.

Tell me about the encore element in your performances. Do you regularly do encores?

I started doing that on tour. It just kind of happened. I feel like a lot of comics that do theaters now integrate that. It’s not any different than a band doing an encore, right? I do it because it’s kind of cool. The show is finished; this is the hour show and here’s this additional part that’s maybe a little looser and doesn’t have to relate to the larger themes and topics of the [hour] show. If it’s a really good crowd and you do your show, it’s fun to come back out and do a few more minutes.

How involved were you in creating your character Tom Haverford on “Parks and Recreation”?

They created the character after I was cast. When I was cast, they didn’t really know what the show would be. I met with them early on and we talked about a few things; I think [Tom] should be really into clothes and a couple other random things … we kept in.

With all the characters, they evolve as the show goes along. From Season 1 to Season 2, they got to know the actors better and took elements from our real lives.

The classic example is Nick Offerman. That guy really does have a woodshop. So let’s make Ron Swanson have a woodshop. And they [filmed that scene] at his real woodshop. I think they did that with all of us, for sure. We’re all playing weirdly heighted versions of ourselves.